A Checklist for Life’s Only Certainty

A Checklist for Life’s Only Certainty

Planning ahead can bring comfort when a loved one is dying

Hopefully you won’t need this checklist soon, but keep it in a safe place — you will need it someday

By Alan G. Orlowsky, J.D., C.P.A.

A version of this article was published in Vital Times, October 2002.

When a loved one is gravely ill or suffers a life-threatening injury, you may be too distraught to think rationally about that person’s financial and legal affairs. But someone will need to take care of those matters, to protect your loved one’s estate and prevent matters from falling into neglect or chaos.

All too often, a client calls my office in a state of panic, saying something like, “My father (or my spouse) is dying, I don’t know where his money is or how to pay his bills, I don’t know where the deeds and titles and tax returns are, I can’t find the name of his accountant, I don’t even know if he has a will. What should I do?”

I can’t tell you how many times that conversation has taken place even though I had advised the same client years earlier to discuss those matters with their spouse or parents, in order to prevent an estate-planning train wreck in the family.

Even if you do have such discussions and become familiar with your loved ones’ estate, when the time comes that you must take action to protect the estate, you may be too distraught to remember all the tasks that must be accomplished and phone calls that must be made. That’s when you need a checklist like the following — keep it in a safe place with your own estate planning documents.

The deathbed checklist

Talking to a dying loved one about money and burial instructions may seem difficult now, but in most cases the loved one derives comfort from knowing that his or her wishes will be noted and followed. Here is a list of tasks to undertake in tending to the last wishes of a loved one:

  • Ask if there are any last-minute instructions, changes, or wishes regarding funeral and burial arrangements. If so, prepare a letter to be signed by your loved one.
  • Make sure you know where estate planning documents and other important papers are stored, including a will, trusts, powers of attorney, insurance policies, buy-sell agreements, real estate deeds, contracts, and business agreements. If any documents have been misplaced, check to see if copies are in the possession of an attorney, financial adviser, or insurance agent. If your loved one is competent, ask him or her to review the will to see if any last-minute changes are necessary.
  • If there is no will or power of attorney, encourage your loved one to hire an attorney to prepare one as soon as possible.
  • Prepare an updated list of assets (including business assets and partnership interests), as well as the locations of safety deposit boxes (and the keys to them).
  • Assemble the most recent bank account, brokerage account, and pension plan statements.
  • If the person has young children and there is no other surviving parent, then a guardian should be appointed; otherwise the courts will make this appointment.
  • Make a list of the loved one’s professional advisers, with contact information. Include lawyers, CPA, banker, broker, financial planner, and any other professional who has knowledge of the estate.
  • Become familiar with the debts and obligations that must be paid before and after death.
  • Make a list of individuals to be contacted before and/or after the loved one’s death.
  • Urge your loved one to prepare a list of important items of personal property such as jewelry, collectibles, clothing, art, and furnishings, and the people to whom those items should pass before or after death.

Post-death checklist

After your loved one passes on, you will have to take care of the following additional matters:

  • Notify the Social Security Administration, Veterans Administration, and other state and federal government pension providers — as well as any private providers — if the individual is receiving benefits. If there is a surviving spouse or minor children, they may be entitled to continued benefits.
  • Contact life insurance providers to obtain claim forms. Gain access to safety deposit boxes.
  • Determine if it will be necessary to open a probate estate.
  • Notify all executors, trustees, beneficiaries, potential heirs, and creditors. If you haven’t done so already, prepare an inventory of assets.
  • Pay off current bills.
  • Contact legal and financial advisers. They may have information that you’ll need to properly administer the estate, and they may be able to shed light on missing assets not previously inventoried.

These checklists are not necessarily all-inclusive — some estates are quite complex, especially when they are complicated by divorce, blended families, complicated business relationships, adopted children, hostilities among family members, disputes with or distrust of advisers, etc. But the checklists touch on the most common and most important items that you’ll deal with upon the death of a loved one.

About the Author

Alan G. Orlowsky, President of Orlowsky & Wilson, Ltd. in Lincolnshire, Illinois, has been counseling people on estate planning for 28 years. He previously worked for the IRS in its Estate and Gift Tax Division. He also worked for the Deloitte & Touche accounting firm, and he has taught taxation and accounting at Loyola University of Chicago, School of Business.

Al is a contributing author of the book 21st Century Wealth (Esperti Peterson Institute, Denver, 2000), and has written numerous articles on the subject of estate planning. Contact Alan Orlowsky by email or call 847-325-5559.

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